I don’t know if it happens to you, but I have discovered that certain books of the Bible have had a particular relevance at different times in life depending on what has been going on in my life and in the world. At the moment during the lockdown its been Paul’s so called “prison epistles” that I have been drawn to. They seem to speak into my life with renewed power and meaning at the moment. Paul wrote the letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon probably when he was under some sort imprisonment in Rome awaiting trial before the Emperor Nero. In other words, he was under confinement, in a lockdown, if you like.
There are a lot of things that Paul wrote during his “lockdown” that I think I am beginning to understand at a much deeper level during my “confinement.” The people of the Church at Philippi always had a very special place in the Apostle’s heart and being unable to see them personally he wrote these words “ Only God knows how much I dearly love you with the tender affection of Jesus, the Anointed One.” Phil 1:8 Reading those words I realised they expressed the depth of feeling I have been experiencing in my heart for the people of Westlake during this time when we are not able to be together physically.
There is another passage that has really caught my attention. In fact, I would tentatively say, that the Holy Spirit brought it to my attention and spoke to me through it . Here it is
2 I want you to know, dear ones, what has happened to me has not hindered, but helped my ministry of preaching the gospel, causing it to expand and spread to many people. 13 For now the elite Roman guards and government officials overseeing my imprisonment have plainly recognized that I am here because of my love for the Anointed One. 14 And what I’m going through has actually caused many believers to become even more courageous in the Lord and to be bold and passionate to preach the Word of God, all because of my chains. Phil 1
I believe that the Holy Spirit planted a thought in my mind from this passage for us as disciples of Jesus and as a church as we face the challenges created by the difficult and unique circumstances, we currently find ourselves in. That thought was this:
THE HOLY SPIRIT BRINGS OPPORTUNITY FROM ADVERSITY FOR GOD’S PEOPLE
I am convinced with all my heart that within every adversity faced by the Church there is the seed of a greater opportunity for the church to grasp.
There is no doubt that Paul was having a hard time, he was in prison, couldn’t move freely, couldn’t see the people he loved, couldn’t meet with churches to preach and teach which was his calling. I suspect that Roman imprisonment was less pleasant than the confinement in our homes we are having to endure. Yet Paul doesn’t focus on the adversity, the problems, the difficulties and the frustration instead he talks about how the adversity that he is going through has opened up new opportunities for the Gospel.
While being imprisoned meant that he couldn’t preach and share the Gospel to larger groups, the opportunity had opened up for him to share the Gospel with a really influential group of people probably one on one. From what he writes it appears that the Emperor’s personal bodyguards, The Praetorian Guard, provided Paul’s prison guards. Paul, being the irrepressible evangelist, couldn’t help himself from sharing the Gospel with these elite solders. The soldiers were in all likelihood chained to him, so Paul had a captive audience! As a result, the Gospel spread to the whole imperial household as these tough soldiers talked about what they were hearing from their prisoner. Opportunity came out of adversity.
It didn’t stop there, other believers were inspired by Paul’s words and example in prison and he says that as a result they had “ become even more courageous in the Lord and to be bold and passionate to preach the Word of God, all because of my chains” Far from silencing the church, Paul’s imprisonment had inspired more people to be even more committed to spreading the Gospel. Paul may have been in prison unable to speak to many people at once but because of his imprisonment more people than ever were hearing the Gospel. Again, we see opportunity coming out of adversity.
Although our physical hardships are not in the same league as Paul’s there is not doubt as Christians and as a church, we are currently experiencing a time of adversity. I dare to believe, that the Holy Spirit is doing for us what he did for Paul and what he has done countless times down the centuries of church history, he is creating opportunities for the Kingdom of God out of adversity. This pattern is so clear in church history.
For instance, in the book of Acts the earliest believers were forced to flee from Judea due to persecution. Arriving in Antioch they found the opportunity to share the Gospel with Gentiles from all over the Roman Empire and like a flame the church spread across Europe. Opportunity came from adversity.
In January 1521, the Pope Leo X excommunicated the Reformer Martin Luther. He was then summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms, an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire. He refused to recant the stand he had taken on the Gospel, and Emperor Charles V declared him an outlaw and a heretic. This meant as well as the authorities hunting for him to bring him to trial for his life anyone could kill Luther with impunity. Luther was a man with a price on his head and so went into hiding at Wartburg Castle for 10 months. There is no doubt that this was a time of adversity for Luther with his life in very real danger. This period of adversity and confinement gave him the opportunity to concentrate on translating the New Testament into German for the first time. Tens of millions of German speaking people have come to faith and grown in their faith because of that translation. Hopefully you are getting the idea, opportunity came from adversity.
I also think about John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield in the 18th century who, following their conversions, were all but banned from speaking in church buildings in England. As a result, they started to preach in public, in fields, outside coal mines and in town squares. John Wesley even preached on his Father’s grave outside the Church building he had grown up attending because he wasn’t allowed to preach the gospel inside. People who would never have come to hear the Gospel in a church building started hearing the Gospel and responding in repentance and the Methodist movement was born. Opportunity again was born out of adversity.
Our job at the moment as a church, your job as Christ follower is to do what Luther, the Wesleys and George Whitfield did. It is to see and grasp the God given opportunity that comes through adversity. Just think about it, more people around us than ever are asking significant questions about the meaning of life and what they believe about what lies beyond the grave. We have the opportunity to share what it means to follow Jesus in the light of those questions. There are so many people currently in need, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially that we seem to be surrounded by opportunities to be the church and love our neighbour as our self. I am certain that in the adversity you are currently facing that you are also facing God given opportunities , as we thought about on Sunday, for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
I can tell you that the adversities we are facing as a church are pretty clear to myself and the other leaders of the church. The Westlake that emerges from this crisis may be different from the one that existed before it. I believe what we need most at the moment is the ability to see the opportunities that the Holy Spirit is creating for us out of this adversity and the courage to grasp them. Would you pray that we would be able to do that?